It took more than a month, but Mater Dei finally found another test. Fittingly, it came deep into the California Interscholastic Federation playoffs, against another fellow unbeaten team. Once again, the Monarchs found a way to finish on top.
Mater Dei, the No. 2 ranked team in the current USA TODAY Super 25, held off constant challenges from fellow Southern California undefeated Rancho Cucamonga to escape with a deceptively one-sided 48-21 victory in the CIF Division I Southern Section semifinals. The win keeps alive the Monarchs hopes of capturing a national title either by profiting from an unexpected Bishop Gorman loss or an improved stature gained from winning a brutally tough Southern Section and, conceivably, capturing an Open Bowl title thereafter.
Could it happen? It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility, though there were moments on Friday when one could be excused for thinking it soon might be. The Cougars jumped out to a surprising 14-0 lead backed by a huge, 128-yard air raid first quarter from Rancho Cucamonga quarterback Nick Acosta. Add to that a rare mistake by Mater Dei signal caller J.T. Daniels on an interception returned for a touchdown, and the Monarchs surprisingly felt like they were on the ropes.
Then they bounced back, as great teams do. Sophomore running back Shakobe Harper suddenly took control of the offense, controlling a drive and eventually scoring from four-yards out to cut Mater Dei’s deficit. After a recovered fumble two drives later put the Monarchs back in business, Harper again scored on an open field run, this time from 20-yards out. A missed extra point maintained a slim advantage for the Cougars, but Daniels’ first touchdown pass of the game, to Amon-Ra St. Brown, put the Monarchs ahead 20-14, as edge which they never relinquished from that point on en route to the Southern Section title game. Mater Dei expanded the advantage to 34-21 by the end of the third quarter and added two more scores — including Harper’s third touchdown of the game — to essentially salt the game away with just more than seven minutes remaining.
In the end, the game will probably be viewed as a one-sided contest due to the final score, even though it was anything but. Now the question is whether Mater Dei can pull off the same magic against an opponent that might be even tougher than a Cougars team that started much quicker and executed more successfully than anyone with Mater Dei clerly expected.